What matters is the jam

Folk music is my first love. Like a lot of first loves, we have had our ups and downs.

Folk music, you see, has a scene, and with a scene comes purists. Tedious people. I was at the more liberal and inclusive end of earnest debates about what could or should be labelled “folk music”, but still I was sucked into those pointless arguments, and didn’t see the core truth. Labels are what you stick onto a jam jar. What matters is the jam.

0028It was this song which got me into folk. I first heard it when I was maybe four.

It is a convict ballad, about a young man who is lead astray by a femme fatale. Sometimes the action is set in London, sometimes (as in this version) in Belfast. Always the singer is an honest lad doing an apprenticeship whose head is turned by the lovely young women described in the chorus.

Her eyes they shone like diamonds
You’d think she was queen of the land
And the hair that hung over her shoulders
Tied up with a black velvet band

The lyrics fascinated and puzzled me. What exactly was a black velvet band? I imagined it as something like the thick rubber bands that the postman put around letters. I also didn’t get the bit about “queen of the land”, and asked my Mum what it meant. She thought a bit, a settled with “it means they’re going to get married”. I still didn’t get it, but let it go.

Hearing the song, more than 40 years on, it is a bit hard to get excited. I know the song over-well – it is sung a lot in Australia, because the girl plants a stolen watch on the singer and he ends up being sent as a convict to Van Diemen’s Land, what is now Tasmania. This version is pretty stock standard, and full of the hearty roar which Irish folk bands felt obliged to deliver in those days.

Ah, but once I loved it, and ran around singing it in what I imagined to be an Irish accent. I even sang it in church, quietly and under the cover of the hymns, a small act of cultural rebellion on my part. Like the singer, I don’t think so highly of the girl with the black Velvet Band as once I did, but like the singer I will never forget her.

  • Artist: The Irish Rovers
  • Single Title: The Unicorn / Black Velvet Band
  • Track: Side B “Black Velvet Band ”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Festival DK-2208
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1968

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